“How to deal with toddler tantrums – the best advice I ever got”

I spent last night sleeping in the toddler bed. In fact, I’ve been spending most nights in the toddler bed ever since my daughter started coming through to our room in the middle of the night. As with most kids, she climbs into bed, knocking her knee and elbow into my ribs in the process, and proceeds to splay herself out across the bed like a starfish. As the nursery rhyme goes, “there were three in the bed and the little one said, roll over…” Well, that’s exactly what I did and have continued to do. Roll over and make my way to her room.

Lying in her bed while my son talked to himself in his sleep in the bed next to me, it struck me that despite making it through those tough, sleepless nights when my children were babies, I am right back in the trenches. How did this happen?

I remember when my kids were really small, how excited I was by the prospect of one day getting a full night’s sleep. I always imagined it would be when they were toddlers. Yet here I am, with two toddlers who still don’t sleep through.

Perhaps what makes it worse is that my daughter, who turns five next month, has always been the good sleeper and until recently has not had a problem sleeping through the night in her bed. Now, she’s seemingly cottoned on to her brother’s midnight meanderings to Mom and Dad’s room – yes, he’s due to sneak out of the room shortly – and has decided it’s a grand idea.

Brother and sister playing on beach together
Matthew (3) and Olivia Baxter (5) at the beach. Image supplied.

As luck would have it, as I sat on a flight back from Joburg, pondering my parenting style and where I might have gone wrong, I struck up a conversation with the lovely woman next to me who just so happened to be somewhat of a parenting pro. Well, she has two grown-up children, but anyone who can get their kids through school and varsity and out into the real world while retaining some semblance of sanity is a pro in my books!

“So, armed with renewed confidence to raise my kids right, I am trialling this four-step programme as I like to call it, and I am optimistic that if I stick to my guns, I might just find my way back out of the trenches…”

As she told me about her two children, both in their 20s and starting their careers, she asked if I had a family. Yes, two toddlers. Most probably hearing the exhaustion in my voice, she said: “It gets easier”. I’m pretty sure she sensed my scepticism.

“I’ve been telling myself that for five years.”

But she did go on to give some sage advice when I chewed her ear off about my daughter’s new nighttime habit and how all my attempts at bribery and incentivisation had failed. But have I put it to her in a way she can understand, my seat neighbour asked?

Brother and sister on scooter bike together
Matthew (3) and Olivia Baxter (5). Image supplied.

“Yes,” I said. I made it clear if she sleeps through the night in her bed for one week, she can get a Barbie. Apparently, that is not speaking her language. What does one week mean to a child, she asked. Five sleeps on the other hand… good point. Feeling like I had struck gold, I asked her for more advice, particularly about managing toddler tantrums.

For every “no” your child gives you, explain that you get one “no” that you can use at any time. Genius! You’re saying no to bath time? Okay, then I get to bank a “no” to use at my discretion.

The secret to success, however, is being consistent, she said. I have to admit I am not always good at this. Sometimes when you’re really tired, or your kids’ heartsore cries when you put down your foot turn you into mush, it’s just so much easier to give in. Is it, right? Definitely not!

And now I realise that it might be what they want you to do at that moment, but it’s not what they need. Which brings me to tip number four. Set boundaries and stick to them. Children might resist at first and push back but, ultimately, they cry out for boundaries. As the stranger in seat 4F so eloquently put it, without boundaries children feel vulnerable.

So, armed with renewed confidence to raise my kids right, I am trialling this four-step programme as I like to call it, and I’m optimistic that if I stick to my guns, I might just find my way back out of the trenches… until the teenage years arrive, that is.

Parents with children sitting happily on couch
Jessica is a writer and editor from Cape Town – and a mom of two young kids. When she’s not working or running after her two little ones, she writes about the mess and the magic of motherhood, sharing her parenting journey, one faux pas at a time. Follow her on Instagram @realhometruths.